If you’re in the emerging middle class demographic in China, congratulations to you! This means that, unlike your parents’ youth, you can own a car. You can find and buy your own apartment as opposed to living in the communal work accommodation. You can wear a suit to work. You have some free time, so you can read a book or get a hobby or play on your phone. That China even has social classes is in stark comparison to the communist aims of the last century, and that food frequently features as a novelty in the newly carved world is sort of ironic (cryptic so as to avoid deportation). Anyway, novelty eating is everywhere in Chinese cities, and surely it doesn’t get much more novel than cheese fondue. Maybe not for Westerners, who are prejudiced against such a delicacy and who can recall memories of lazy Susan passing around the bowl of tepid cheese for her guests to dunk their chopped vegetables and hunks of bread into, in a dreadfully fun attempt to disguise the reality of her shamefully unwomanly inabilities in the kitchen. Not that I can remember, obviously. I was born in 1989 as this black cloud of a fad was coming to a close. (And, ofcourse, it wasn’t until 2009 that I began hosting my black tie dinner parties, and as a student, couldn’t afford cheese let alone the gas burner to keep it dippably viscous).
I’ve never heard of Cheese fondue here before, but when some students invited me to a restaurant they’d heard about in Harbin where this is the star (and only) attraction, I jumped at the chance. Like many things in life, my ability to buy cheese seems to run in peaks and troughs, and living in here is one massive cheese trough. It’s possible to buy catering sized blocks in Metro (same company behind Makro) or sickeningly overpriced individual portions in a few of the more international supermarkets, but it’s certainly not on the daily menu. I did try and buy a catering sized block when I went to Metro last, but there was some problem with it scanning, and seeing as I could neither speak Chinese nor re-enter the store sadled down with my already purchased bulk buys, I left sans cheese.
Cheese isn’t a traditional Chinese food, and so most Chinese people don’t buy it. One student, keen to immerse himself in the Western lifestyle before moving abroad to study next year, bought a block of cheese, opened the packet and began gnawing away. Now, under normal circumstances, I would wholly advocate this as one of many methods of cheese consumption, but as it was his first time to consume this block of dairylicious delight, the Kerrygold sat heavy for a few minutes before rapidly projecting itself northwards and out to freedom along with the contents of his stomach.
So despite that most Chinese don’t even know whether they can eat cheese or not (QI purports that 92% of the Chinese population is lactose intolerant), the overpriced mediocre dipping cheese restaurant we visited seems to be thriving. Such is the luxuriant lifestyles of today’s emerging middle class, that they can unblinkingly fork out for something their body is likely to not be able to tolerate, just coz. It’s a small place with setting for about 12 diners in total, and we sat down and put in our order. First to arrive were the puddings. Obviously, cheesecake. They tasted a bit like creamy jelly but the buttery biscuit base was not to be sniffed at. Then they brought out platters of dipping comestibles – bread, broccoli, carrots, tomatoes, weird floral shaped spam chunks, chopped fruit salad and a dish of mayonnaise. I’m often amused when I see the Eastern interpretation of Western things, but I can’t pretend I wasn’t disturbed as I watched one of my companions, with the determined curiosity of any great traveller reaching a new frontier, dipping a chunk of watermelon into the mayonnaise and popping straight into her mouth. Apparently this was perfectly okay because the rest of the fruit was devoured in this distopian manner.
I was starting to worry that they’d ran out of cheese and had hoped we’d be too distracted by the assortment of confusing floral inspired meat already on show to notice, when it appeared. As mentioned before I’ve never had cheese fondue so I’m not sure how it’s supposed to taste, but it was basically a less salty, less mustardy, less cheesy, less wonderful version of my grandma’s Welsh Rarebit. I’ve been out eating with these girls a few times, and whilst most Chinese girls have the appetites of fragile little birds, this pair love a good bit of grub and so we ate and ate. It was a very expensive option (£10 a head), and whilst it satisfied their curiosity it left their bellies wanting more. Because it wasn’t Chinese food they felt like they hadn’t really had dinner and were craving noodles to finish off the meal. It was fun, but I’ve experienced far better novelty dining.
The pictures are courtesty of one of the girls, so I can’t take credit for those mad editing skillZ. There’s one of the house cat, who’s job it was to lounge in the window enticing customers like a seedy brothel, then once inside, terrifying them because actually it’s an animal and everyone’s scared of animals.